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The UK Professoriate: male, pale and stale (and unequal)

  • 14 February 2023
  • By Roger Watson

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Roger Watson, President, National Conference of University Professors.

Since the 1980s, the number of UK university professors has grown five times from 4,500 to 22,855. The professoriate remains predominantly White British and less than one-third are female. However, little knowledge is available about what the UK professoriate does and if, for example, ethnicity and gender influence their roles. Towards that end, the National Conference of University Professors (NCUP) commissioned a survey of the UK professoriate in 2022 to which over 1,000 professors responded.

The NCUP survey of 1991

The NCUP, which exists to support university professors in carrying out their special responsibilities for the maintenance of academic standards; and provides a forum for discussion and a corporate voice on matters of concern to the nation’s university system, first commissioned a survey of the UK professoriate in 1991. Since that time, the number of universities has increased hugely with a concomitant increase in the number of students. In 1991, university professors were typically heads of department, personal chairs were rare and research performance was almost the only route to promotion. Routes to professorship are now more varied, with a growth in the number of personal chairs and alternative routes to promotion by teaching and scholarship. But what is the promotion profile of the current UK professoriate and what do those promoted to the professoriate do?


Of the respondents to the NCUP survey, most professors (over 75%) are employed full-time and approximately 50% of them have been promoted by the personal route. Over 60% of professors have been promoted by the research route, with less than 20% being promoted by the teaching route. Most of the respondents (over 80%) were recruited from within the UK. The respondents were predominantly male (approximately 60%) and the majority (over 70%) were White British.

Unevenly distributed roles and mentorship

Contrary to what may be expected, UK professors assume a wide variety of roles, with some claiming that they had nine roles with a mean role expectation of five roles. However, these roles were not evenly distributed by gender or ethnicity. Both women and professors who were not White British assumed statistically more roles than their male, White British counterparts.

Few professors claimed to be mentored in their role, but most claimed to mentor others, predominantly early career researchers and non-professorial staff. Men more commonly mentored than women and White British men more commonly mentored than professors who were not White British, and these differences were statistically significant. This may be a function of the predominance of White British men among the respondents, but it possibly reveals a failing in the system of staff support and the likely existence of a vicious cycle whereby women and non-White British professors are less involved in mentorship and, therefore, less likely to serve as role models for others. The lack of role models and, especially, the lack of insight into how women and non-White British professors have attained their goals may be a factor dissuading non-White academics from seeking promotion to the professoriate.

Lack of personal support

While the recent NCUP survey and the original 1991 survey had little in common either in the questions asked or in the outcomes, one finding from the 2022 survey was very congruent with the original survey. In 1991, the NCUP highlighted that few professors had personal secretarial or administrative support. This has not changed, and the recent survey uncovered that over 70% had no personal support and very few had a personal budget. Given the wide range of roles that professors are obliged to assume, including mentorship, this seems tantamount to the misuse of this very precious resource. On the one hand, naturally, there will be budgetary constraints which may limit the extent to which support can be provided. On the other hand, what are the opportunity costs, including the possibility of income generation, that are lost if professors must manage their own diaries, travel and liaison with university departments relevant to their role, especially research offices and finance departments?

Finally, under 30% of the respondents were aware of a university-wide professorial forum in their university and, where one existed, less than 10% considered it had any influence on the senior management team of their university. This strikes me as another waste of a very valuable resource, specifically, professorial input into the management of the university.


While the routes to professorship are becoming more varied, the profile of the UK professoriate is much as could be expected: predominantly White British and male. The professoriate assumes a wide range of roles, often without personal or financial support. Role distribution and mentorship are unevenly distributed based on ethnicity and gender, favouring White British male professors. One of the aims of the NCUP is to mentor others who aspire to professorial positions. In terms of increasing the equality and diversity of the UK university professoriate, there is work to be done.

If you are interested in membership of NCUP details are available here.

1 comment

  1. Is this survey about full professors?

    Opportunities are now much more open to all but it takes time for the system to show the evolution taking place. Gender options are becoming more complicated with neutral gender being recognised.
    A neglected area is ageism; society needs a circular knowledge economy with young and old working with each other.

    We must however maintain the high standards expected of full professors.

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